Since middle school, I’ve always had a strange fascination with the omni statements about God. Between trying to imagine nothing and figuring out when eternity ends, I would contemplate what it meant for God to be Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent. Well, between those deeps thoughts and getting my butt kicked by my cousin in Blitz on the N64 that is. God’s omnipotence certainly didn’t save me from some rather embarrassing defeats.
In the 15 or so years since my days as a preteen theologian, I’ve had some game changing insights (that I later found out someone else had about 1,700 years ago). I’m also still wrestling with how do these doctrines impact me today. How does the head knowledge apply to my heart knowledge?
Below are my thoughts, but if you are unfamiliar with the omni phrases, most of them get summarized concisely and pretty accurately here.
In order to avoid being repetitive, I want to discuss some points that are common to all 4 statements.
The omni-ness of God is not a measurement on a scale or spectrum. So, don’t mistake the “all” for “most”. Sure God is the most powerful, but that is not the declaration here. The declarations of God being “all” is a pronouncement of His absolute sufficiency and our absolute dependence. God doesn’t need us, but we need Him.
These statements shouldn’t be used to contain God either. Sometimes we treat these statements as if they are constraints that help make God small enough to be manageable. Rather, they are the launching pad for opening up who God is. God does not exist somewhere inside these descriptors, but rather begins here and goes far beyond what we can articulate. They challenge our great temptation to put God in a box of our own fashioning.
Here is what I mean:
Saying “God is omnipresent” doesn’t confine God. Rather it reminds me that all presence comes from Him. I am only present because God is present. I did not bring myself into existence.
Calling God omnipotent doesn’t make Him a computer program that should do something because it can. Instead it reminds me that all doing comes from Him. I am only the agent of my own actions because God has made acting possible.
Omniscience reminds me that I can only know truth because it first came from the mind of God. There is no truth that does not have its origin in God.
I can do nothing apart from God, because apart from God there is no existence.
God’s omnipresence is not merely a declaration about space; it includes time. It is about the reality that all space and time exist because God wills them to exist and thus he can be found in their existence. This isn’t animism. Space and time are not God, but God’s presence is revealed because there is something where there otherwise should be nothing.
This also speaks to the fact that God is indivisible. Where God is, all of Him is present. This is the nature of God as Spirit. He is utterly simple and has no “parts.” God exists as an entirety and only as an entirety. This is why Jesus tells His disciples that “If you have seen me, than you have seen the Father.” While they are distinct as persons they are inseparable in substance.
God is all-powerful. All power, all agency, all motion and movement is derived from God. If I truly believe this, then I can never take refuge in the cry of “I can do what I want.” This claim rests on the assumption that I have ownership of my ability to do anything, but I don’t. It is a gift. I’m a steward of that gift, it is not of my own making. Of course we are able to make choices, but God didn’t give us that ability to see who He could weed out of the pack.
God gave us the privilege and burden of choice because without the ability to choose, the ability to love is non-existent (the ability to love is different than the feeling of love or the expression of affection). In the words of Christopher West, “If you can’t say no, your yes means nothing.”
This is one of the ways God’s power is expressed. We make robots capable of artificial sentience, capable of processing. God creates sentient beings, capable of love. To love and to be loved is the greatest good because this is the interior life of the Trinity. So when it comes down to God’s choice to allow us to love – give us free will – or not allow us to love – withhold free will – why would he withhold it? So when we choose against love, does that disprove God? I don’t think so, because I can only make that choice because I’m not a robot.
God is all knowing. This does not mean that God has compiled the most information. He is not some divine Alexandrian Library. No, He is all-aware, all-understanding, and all-true.
His truth is why we can celebrate the rays of truth that we find in other religions, because all truth is derived from God.
His awareness and understanding make God personal. They also are the means by which His mercy and justice exist in there perfect paradoxical dance.
Finally, this is the presumption upon which the physical science can operate. The universe is intelligible because an intelligence is responsible for it.
God is all-loving. This is a tough one in our hedonistic culture where providing comfort, pleasure, and reassurance is loving and making people uncomfortable, allowing suffering and struggles is hateful. In that case anyone who would allow suffering immediately becomes unloving. And that argument would hold greater weight, if we could all agree on the criteria by which to define love.
However, I find more truth in this definition of love, “willing the good of the other, as other.” This is a definition that transcends emotion, and truly and selflessly upholds justice, peace, and human dignity. With this definition I know that God’s love is unconditional. With absolutely no self-interest — because God needs nothing — He willed me into existence and sustains me here. God wills my good, not so that I can fulfill some need of His, but just for my own good.
This final statement brings us full circle to the earlier section of what the omni statements mean for us. St. John summarizes it all better than I ever could. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 NAB).